Ji-Tu Cumbuka, the actor known for his role of Wrestler in the ABC miniseries Roots, has died at the age of 77.
Cumbuka died Tuesday, July 4 in Atlanta, Georgia, according to his niece Amber Holifield in a Facebook post.
“In my Uncle Ji-Tu’s final days until his final moments he was surrounded with love and support!” said Holifield in her post (below). “It’s was a blessing for all of us to be together in his final hour, and not to mention we pretty much stayed at the hospital with him, and boy did he enjoy our company. The nurses, maybe a different story… lol. He stayed strong and just as sweet as he wanted to be the entire time and that I will never forget that!!”
Among those paying tribute was LeVar Burton, who played Kunta Kinte, the central character in Alex Haley’s 1977 Emmy Award-winning miniseries. “He played the Wrestler in the original Roots, one of Kunta’s primary mentors,” shared Burton on Twitter soon after news spread Saturday of Cumbuka’s death. “As he was for me on my first gig! #RIP”
Cumbuka, who released an autobiography in 2011 called A Giant to Remember: The Black Actor in Hollywood, landed many roles on various television and film productions throughout the years. He played Hawk on 1977’s Young Dan’l Boone show, and then in 1979 landed the role of Torque, a recurring character on the short-lived NBC spy series A Man Called Sloane. Other TV credits include Ironside, Sanford and Son, Knight Rider, The Dukes of Hazzard, The A-Team, St. Elsewhere, The Six Million Dollar Man, Hunter, Matlock, Knots Landing, Walker Texas Ranger, and CSI.
On the big screen, Cumbuka best known for playing the “Toothless Gambler” in the 1989 Eddie Murphy comedy Harlem Nights. Before that, he appeared in Richard Pryor’s 1985 comedy Brewster’s Millions. He also had parts in Blacula, Maurie (in which he played NBA guard Oscar Robertson), Mandingo, Bound for Glory, Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde, Fun With Dick and Jane, Moving, and Midnight Edition.
Born in Alabama, the actor was named by his grandmother. In Swahili, Ji-Tu means “giant” and Cumbuka “to remember.”
Cumbuka spent the last few years of his life founding the Help Somebody Foundation Ministries, a non-profit organization that helps people battle addiction and face social challenges to once again become part of the community as productive citizens.